Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Up past my bedtime

I stayed up until 1:30 last night, working. I never do that, but I was on a roll, and didn't realize how late it had gotten. I now have a draft of a 16,000-word sample chapter, with only a few holes: two sets of legal citations to look up, one book to skim for references to one of the subtopics, and revising the chapter intro and conclusion to reflect the changes I made. But all in all, I'm cautiously hopeful.

48 hours and counting. Any good thoughts and encouragement (or cookies, or offers to read chapters... or cookies...) will be really, really appreciated.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Final" Push

("Final" is in scare quotes because, with any luck, this is really the first push of many to come.)

Friday, I have to send out my proposal and sample chapter to publishers. At the last minute (like, last Friday), I decided that the chapter I was working on wasn't going to cut it in time, so I've switched to filling out a chapter that is already pretty good, but needs a bit more oomph. Disadvantage: it doesn't reflect the thinking of the past 8 months. Advantage: as far as writing and organization go, it is far and away the best of the chapters I have. It's also got women of questionable reputation in it, and who doesn't like that?

Anyway, I'm probably going dark until Friday. By happy coincidence, Interesting Development** is turning in the final draft of his dissertation on Wednesday. So by the end of the week, we may both be a bit more relaxed.

**After five months, I really need to think up a new pseudonym for him, don't I?

Monday, April 28, 2008

A happy discovery

Today, while glancing over the table of contents for a book that outlines a case that might be useful in constructing about 200 words for chapter six, I made the happy discovery that this author just happened to spend 20 or so pages doing a very workmanlike (gotta love them Europeans!) outline of some intricate-yet-boring-to-research issues of medieval procedural law in the time and place I am studying -- issues that I was going to need to track down for the as-yet-unwritten chapter two.

Only rarely will you hear me spontaneously yell "Oh, yeah -- right on!" when I'm in my office looking at a book. This was one of those times.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Reconciling with the reader

We've all heard something along the lines of how a reviewer critiqued a writer for not writing a completely different article or book, and in a sense that's the substance of one reader's critiques on my article MS. Imagine that I'm writing an article about industrial agriculture and the food chain, á là Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Imagine that, in order to illustrate my points about industrial agriculture and the food chain, I decide to talk about tomatoes as an example: how they are native to a particular climate and soil type; how they are hyper-engineered to grow in other places, and not to be lumpy or mottled, and harvested green in order to be able to ship them to inhospitable climates. I conclude that the engineering of the naturally yummy heirloom tomato into a perfectly round, red, unblemished, and completely tasteless bit of produce shows how industrial agriculture is taking food away from us while it purports to give us more.

Now, imagine that a reader's report comes back, telling me that I've neglected volumes of literature on tomatoes in various global contexts, and that I've only skimmed over the tomato's relation to other plants in the nightshade family, and not even bothered to discuss how some people make tomatoes into spaghetti sauce, rather than eating them sliced on a sandwich -- all of which I'd have more room to do if I just cut out those long-winded sections on industrial agriculture.

Did I fume about this? Hells, yes. Did I uncharitably mutter that the reader was dense for totally missing the point? Well... okay, maybe a bit. But let me tell you what I eventually learned (and this is several weeks after getting the critique): if a reader comes away from my article thinking I didn't adequately discuss tomatoes, it's because that reader honestly thinks that that's what my article is about.

And whose fault is that? Only my own.

So your intrepid Girl-Scholar once again attempts to clarify her point. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Newest Cliché

A couple of months ago, I compared my work on this manuscript to herding cats.

Today, as I reworked yet another unworkable outline for a half-chapter, I shifted to a new cliché: rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

But this time, it'll really be unsinkable. Right?

[ADDENDUM: I went back to search for the "Herding Cats" post so I could link it. Turns out that "a couple of months ago" was actually seven months ago. Over half a year. I was so optimistic then...]

Thursday, April 17, 2008

How To Propose

So now that I've committed to sending in a proposal, it's time to whip that thing into shape. In fact, if I can recommend anything I've done with this project as Something I Did Right That Everyone Should Do, it is this: Write your proposal now. As soon as you have a year between you and your dissertation defense, write your book proposal. Yes, it will change a lot between dissertation time and the day you talk to publishers. But this is really the best thing that I did for myself, because it forced me to really think about what I was trying to argue, and why my work was interesting. Since my dissertation honestly lacked a central focus, this gave me a roadmap for moving forward.

At this point, I did two smart things. First, I read William Germano's book. Seriously, pick it up. Second, I sent off the proposal to three people I know who have published a lot, and prepared to take their advice with humility and gratitude. Part of me thought this second bit would be a walk in the park, because a compressed version of the same proposal had already garnered me a load of fellowships this past year. Of course, that's never the case, so here are some of the suggestions I received, which might be helpful to anyone trying to write a book proposal**:

1. Give them what they want. The publisher will have a "for authors" section; do what it says. If it says 2-5 pages, then give them that. If it asks for a table of contents, make sure you include that. If they say, "tell us who the potential audience is," you'd better do that. This means that every proposal you send out will be a little different, even though you may be working from the same template for all of them.

2. Editors are not academics.*** They are business people, in the business of finding potential books that will sell. Show the editor the same thing that will move someone browsing your book at Big Conference Book Display to think "Gosh, I'm gonna buy this one." The book proposal, from what I've been given to understand, probably has more in common with a movie pitch to a Hollywood producer than with a fellowship proposal.

3. Editors are also not your dissertation advisor, expecting you to cite every book ever written on your subject. I spent time crafting a historiographic footnote justifying my book's existence, and a "selected bibliography" to show the breadth of work I had consulted. On the recommendation of one of my readers (who has published over half a dozen books with university presses), I just hit delete.

4. Editors are also not your mom, but it wouldn't hurt to write as if she were the intended audience. Could she read this and get at least a general sense of what your book is about? I don't know about your mom, but mine would have a big problem wading through my first draft's constant references to "discourse" (the same might go for "hermeneutics" or "performativity," if those are your sins). If you use the word "problematize," go stand in the corner for five minutes and think about what you've done, missy.

5. Be interesting quickly. I suck at this. It's why online dating didn't work out for me. Maybe my proposal needs a push-up bra. I'm not sure how I'm going to get there in my own proposal, but I do know that I've got to get it out there in the first paragraph, rather than embrace my own tendency to meander.

6. You are being graded on clarity as well as content. What we tell our students applies to us, too: if you can't communicate your ideas, then what good are they? If an editor has to hack through incomprehensible prose (including my love of parenthetical statements) to understand what your proposal says, they're going to assume that the book is just as dense and incoherent, and thus not worth reviewing. [Fill in your own extended first-date metaphor here, if you choose.] If they give up at the proposal stage, they'll never know.

Any further suggestions from you published authors (or editors!) out there are welcome.

**To be taken with a grain of salt, as I haven't had anything accepted yet.
***Series editors, on the other hand, are academics, so striking a balance is the tricky bit that I'm still working out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Keeping up appearances

Okay, I'll admit it right now: Three months before my first AHA, I went on a diet-and-exercise program, which I continued pretty much until my second run at the AHA. Because having grown up overweight, I knew that people judge you for these things, no matter how much they may try not to.

Why bring this up? Well, for those of you who haven't seen it, there's an article in the Chronicle about a perennial adjunct who gets Botox injections before her latest round of job interviews. I won't judge the author, who seems ambivalent about ditching a long-held belief ("that women should not turn themselves into time-frozen fantasy objects while men garner value with age") in order to get a job.

Really, though, my question is: when did academia become a glamour profession? It seems to me that there was a time when professors were expected to be a bit dumpy. Sure, there was That One Professor that everyone had a crush on, but that was exceptional. Now, I can log on to RMP and check in to see how many chili peppers they've gotten. I've had a student tell me that at least one other student was ogling me (a perfectly average-looking nearing-middle-aged woman), and seemed taken aback at my response: "I don't want to know that."

I really don't. Because frankly, it's bad enough having to worry about how far behind I am on my writing, whether that article will get published, whether my lectures need to be updated, how I'm ever going to get out of debt, or where on earth I've put the receipts for my recent conference travel, without also having to think about whether the 5-10 pounds I've gained will make people think differently in a professional framework.

I'm just too damn busy for that crap.

Friday, April 11, 2008

An irrevocable step

I've done it.

I've contacted two publishers (out of my list of four) who will be at Kalamazoo, and offered them the proposal and sample chapter(s) by about a week before the conference.

NOW I'm motivated to write. Fear will do it every time.

Monday, April 7, 2008

When research gets personal

First, a quick report: I'm back from a conference in Chicago, which was lovely. I didn't get to play tourist like I had planned (Interesting Development begged off the trip to stay home and write), but I did see a number of interesting papers, and made a couple of good contacts, including some young scholars working in the same field as I, and one senior scholar who has agreed to read my MS. So that's good.

Since returning, I've been reading about various forms of violence perpetrated against women. My route to women's history was a convoluted one, and I'll blog about that at some point, but I think that it's fair to say that those of us working on gender topics, perhaps more so than most, do it out of a sense of personal investment: we want to understand the history of the constructs that in many ways constrain our own experience.

This can be wonderfully enlightening, and even liberating to realize that it's not about you in particular. But it can also be horribly depressing to see the same patterns played out, century after century [NB: yes, I was poking at Bennett's History Matters again -- another thing I'll have to blog about].

Even more unsettling is when you see things you can identify with, either in whole or in part. The shock of recognition can be overwhelming at times: one does not want to feel tears welling up when one is reading at one's perch at a coffee shop table, but sometimes there's nothing one can do about it.

So, in these situations, am I supposed to maintain historical detachment? Does knowledge of a personal connection to my research make me a better historian, or a worse one?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

No fooling

I should have posted this yesterday, because that's when I saw it: Behold! The first crocuses!

Spring comes awfully late to Fellowship City.

There's more, but I'm headed off for a conference in about half an hour, so I'll post from there.

Happy April, everybody!